Ripper, by Isabel Allende

Near the end of Isabel Allende’s novel Ripper, a serial killer has abducted Indiana, the mother of the teenaged main character, Amanda. Before getting ready to kill her, the serial killer ruminates on Indiana’s faults; she is stupid and unobservant; she is passive; she is sexually irresponsible and she is a bad mother.

Sadly, I found myself in complete agreement with the serial killer.

This is usually not a good thing in a thriller, unless the book is written from the killer’s point of view, which Ripper is not. It’s more an indication that Indiana, who supposedly is not the book’s main character, takes up way too much time, and is problematic in other ways.

Ripper was marketed as Allende’s first thriller. I think the books works better if it is read as a classic Allende novel with thriller sprinkles on top. The pacing of the book is not right for a thriller, and in this case, making the “detective” character a teenager is unsuccessful, although the circle of Amanda’s game-playing friends (they gather via Skype to play Ripper, before Amanda introduces a set of real murders in San Francisco) is wonderful. I wish we had seen more of the young people and that those set pieces had more impact on the plot. Usually, the players pontificate on various aspects of serial killing, Amanda gives them an “assignment,” and the session ends. We rarely hear back on the progress of the assignments until near the end of the book.

Amanda’s grandfather, Blake, (Indiana’s father) is part of the circle. He has practically raised his granddaughter, since his daughter is so irresponsible, but within the game he is her obedient minion, never speaking without her permission. Blake is almost a fantasy father-figure. He is a retired policeman. He lets his daughter, who works at an Alternative Healing Center as a massage therapist, live in her own apartment above the garage, while Amanda lives with him in the house. Amanda’s paternal grandmother pays for Amanda’s tuition at a local Catholic boarding school. There is no reason for Amanda to go to boarding school except that it frees Indiana from having to be a mother.

Indiana, who Allende describes in an Afterword as a “white witch,” is very compassionate and intuitive, but her intuition has a huge blind spot; herself. She is an infantilized character; an “independent” woman who depends on men for everything. In her mid-thirties she lets her father support her. Her ex-husband gives her money in addition to the child support, but more tellingly, when she thinks she has had a break-in, her ex (also a cop) comes to her apartment when she isn’t there and changes the locks for her, without asking. Indiana sees this as okay. Indiana’s contribution to child-raising is that she always has Friday dinner with her daughter.

Indiana also makes bad choices in sex partners, which really isn’t surprising. Her relationship with the sleazy Alan Keller never makes sense. At one point she stands up to him and calls him out for objectifying her. They break up, but two weeks later, when he offers her a Bulgari diamond ring, she reunites with him. Later, we find out there might be a reason for doing this, but it is much too late.

Indiana really impeded my ability to enjoy many of the aspects that make an Allende novel so much fun. The descriptions of San Francisco’s North Beach, with Italian restaurants and coffee places, is lush and lovely. The eccentrics who work at the alternative healing center are completely convincing. Allende’s sly wit pokes through at the right moments, and her larger-than-life characters like Ryan the damaged Afghanistan vet and his half-titanium-cyborg dog, are vivid and wild. Towards the end of the book, Allende takes advantage of the surrounding San Francisco Bay area, describing parts of the east bay and San Pablo bay with delightful accuracy.

The killer, with an almost superhuman ability to change appearance and identity, and to manipulate people, would be right at home in a Jo Nesbo novel. The weirdness of the different murders and the “game” of finding what the victims have in common, is pretty good too. Like most thrillers, the way the law and police procedure is tortured to make the story work is hard to watch sometimes. For instance, working police detective Bob Martinez brings home files, crime scene photos and autopsy reports to show his adolescent daughter. Oh, please! But seriously, this is pretty common in thrillers, and I could have lived with it.

Allende does mis-step in my opinion, in several places. There is one gay male character in the book, who is also a drag queen. Isn’t that convenient? At a show at the drag club, Ryan, who suffers post-traumatic stress, has a meltdown and lands in jail. It’s because there is too much noise and too many people … It’s not homophobia. No, sir. Not at all.

But Indiana is the biggest problem. Perhaps I was supposed to take her with more of a grain of salt, but to me she was like the self-involved, loud person you just met at a social gathering, who keeps going on and on about her stuff, while you’d like to get to know some of the other people at the party. She was a killjoy, and she dented my reading enjoyment.

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